Europe Day is usually a time when politicians and political parties get out in the streets and meet their potential voters, literally and figuratively flying the EU flag.
The date marks the 1950 signing of the Schumann Declaration, which is widely regarded as the starting point for the modern European Union, and the celebration of the day was introduced in the 1980s as a way to foster a feeling of greater pan-European identity.
This year things are different, with coronavirus restricting public gatherings, and politicians taking their message online.
Finland’s youngest Member of the European Parliament Alviina Alametsä (Green) has two virtual events on Saturday with other EU Greens. But she’s no stranger to online engagement.
Alametsä wants to use her time in Brussels and Strasbourg to engage with more young people, to show them the institution of the European Parliament is not out of touch, and have a dialogue with younger voters in the digital spaces where they meet.
“You have to pick your battles and always remember where the audience is” says Alametsä, who only spent one month in Brussels this year after taking up her seat (which was allocated to Finland after the UK left the EU) before the coronavirus epidemic struck and she came back to Helsinki.
“I think the main challenge is whether you use the right channels. For example using Facebook is not the best way to reach young people any more. Maybe the big audience can be in Facebook, but if you look at the data where you people are, of course Instagram is something we’ve done a lot, but then we do Jodel and Reddit and we are trying to start a YouTube channel, and also TikTok more” she tells News Now Finland.
“I think young people have a weak voice in parliament and in politics in general, and I hope with more dialogue we can put their wishes and hopes forward. Young people like to participate more and not just have to listen to what politicians are saying. They don’t just want to see a wall of text on Facebook, they like to share their own ideas” Alametsä explains.
Young politicians at the European Parliament
Alametsä tells the story of her first Foreign Affairs Committee meeting in Brussels where a security guard denied her entry to the room because he didn’t believe she could be an MEP.
It’s a mistake that’s probably easy to make, with only a handful of younger politicians in the building. Finland doesn’t have any other MEPs under 40, and the average age of parliamentarians is almost 50, with one Italian politician still working in his 80s.
“It’s really problematic because the average age of the parliament is high. But I don’t think this means young MEPs are not good enough. But it’s just difficult for young people to get the funding and get enough votes to get there.”
Younger MEPs she reckons, could even be more motivated than their older colleagues who perhaps already had a long career in the corridors of power in Brussels.
“It’s the same as any work place. Young people bring new energy and ideas.”
Alametsä wants to see a European Parliament that’s more reflective of the people it represents – from different walks of life, and with different perspectives to add to the conversation.
“I think we should have more people from different age groups, and there’s a significant lack of minorities. There are only middle aged, and quite experienced MEPs, who are already in quite a socio-economically higher position. There’s not that many people of colour, or from minorities or with limited financial resources” she explains.
Challenges for EU politics
Although in general Finns have been contented members of the European Union since joining in 1995 – albeit with ups and downs – that doesn’t necessarily translate to the European Parliament elections, where Finland continues to have one of the lowest voter turnout rates of young people in any of the 27 member states.
A new poll this week found that 53% of Finns have a positive attitude towards EU membership, while 20% have a negative attitude. The favourability rate has fallen by seven percentage points recently, something that could be attributed to the dismal performance the EU had at the start of the coronavirus crisis, especially looking out of touch as countries like Italy and Spain suffered.
“I think it was dealt with badly in the beginning. But after that it picked up and the EU has done a strong economic survival package, and the green deal has been emphasized as well” says Alviina Alametsä.
“In the beginning some countries were left very much alone, and that has reflected in the public’s image of the EU, which was not able to be activw” she adds.
“I don’t think the EU was prepared for a pandemic in the way it should have been.”